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Diary: Graham James

22 January 2021


Roman returns

A FRIEND applying for UK citizenship has recently taken (and passed) the examination that is part of the process. She included some of the questions in a recent quiz that we did on Zoom.

I failed to identify the names of the researchers who cloned Dolly the Sheep (apologies to Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell); the correct date when the Vikings first invaded (AD 798, I was told, although Wikipedia says AD 793); or when the Romans successfully established themselves in Britain. That’s apparently AD 63, since the key word is “successfully”.

I went for 55 BC, which I remembered from my schooldays. Julius Caesar definitely invaded then, but he did not colonise, although he did extract a promise that the British would pay tribute (tax) to Rome. But it’s doubtful that much was forthcoming: Caesar didn’t have HMRC to chase the defaulters.


Undisputed truths

I AM a referee for my friend as she negotiates the citizenship process, despite doing so badly myself with the test questions. I suspect that it would be difficult to find native-born UK citizens who would not struggle without doing some homework. Much of it is based on history as dates, or culture as the memorising of facts.

When asked how old the Giant’s Causeway was, I guessed somewhere about 60 million years. It turned out to be 50 million, so nul points. But I would have thought knowing that it was not built as a 20th-century tourist attraction was perhaps more important.

I was so intrigued by all this that I decided to look at some of the practice tests on the government website. Alongside an eclectic mix of doubtful claims (e.g. “pool is a traditional pub game in England” — billiards, surely?) there were various statements that the applicant has to declare to be true or false. One is “there is no place in British society for extremism or intolerance.”

Apparently, this is true, whereas I would have thought such a claim ought at least to be followed by the word “discuss”.


Days without end

IT IS reported that the Duke of Edinburgh does not want any fuss over his 100th birthday. I reach 70 this month, and would quite like a bit of fuss, but Covid-19 has put paid to that. Reaching the biblical span of three score years and ten makes Psalm 90 more personally challenging.

My Cornish parents were living in Torrington at the time of my birth; so I emerged into the world in Devon rather than in my native county. No wonder I get confused about whether to put the clotted cream or jam on a scone first.

This significant birthday has prompted me to think about my grandfathers. Both died at 52, well before I was born. No one at the time thought that they died particularly young. Cornish tin miners rarely lived to old age, but succumbed to silicosis in large numbers. Little wonder that there was no pension problem at the time.

Perhaps the most dramatic development in my lifetime has been the lengthening of life expectancy. Covid-19 has illustrated how living healthily into our eighties — and even beyond that — is not something we question. It now seems almost a right, although one that is still unthinkable in most of the world.


Nunc dimittis

THIS expectation of long, healthy lives may go some way to explaining why there seems much less confidence in the Church nowadays in ministering to the dying. It’s been tragic that so many people have died without loved ones beside them; but I know of too many cases in which Christians who would have appreciated what are popularly called the last rites have not received them.

Last month, a dying resident in one of the care homes in Truro asked to see a priest. No one seemed immediately available; so I was contacted. Anyone entering the home needed to have had a negative Covid test in the previous seven days. Since things were urgent, I did the best I could over Skype. The man concerned (whom I knew more than 20 years ago) was very attentive, despite his weak condition.

I’m sure the visual connection mattered. It may have been only a virtual anointing, but I never expected to give the command “Go forth, Christian soul, from this world. . .” — the most authoritative and powerful of all prayers — via my laptop. Afterwards, he refused further medication, and died peacefully a few hours later.

Quite whether my rapid adaptation of the customary prayers would have passed muster with the Liturgical Commission I don’t know, but I’m sure too many people die without any such ministry, virtual or otherwise. Somehow, the Church does too little to publicise its availability, even among the faithful.


O rest in the Lord

AMONG the euphemisms for death, “fallen asleep” has a good deal of biblical warrant, used as it was by Paul when writing to both the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. It does convey something of the hope of resurrection and the expectation of an awakening on the Day of the Lord.

I’ve been pondering it, since I seem to be sleeping more than ever during lockdown. One of the liberations of retirement is not to set the alarm early, but, in the early months of retirement, both my wife and I woke as early as ever. Now, things have changed: in my case, it feels as if I’m catching up on a lifetime of lost sleep.

I was always told that this was impossible — but perhaps I’m storing up sleep for all those activities and travels that have been postponed in recent months. Either way, I can confidently say it’s a good feeling.


The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

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